Encouraging literacy proficiency in males of color

By Anthony L. Hubbard

How often do we hear academics and scholars use the phrase “One size does not fit all”, when discussing a number of educational or socio-economic issues facing America? Well, one very pressing challenge that fits that description is related to the task of building literacy proficiency in young males of African American origin.

The issue is not just about getting these males to complete the “must-read” text in the classroom. It goes much beyond that. The real challenge lies in encouraging these young men to embrace reading and writing so that they might develop “in total” both education and socio-emotionally – and not simply in terms of passing an exam or moving to the next grade.

Addressing the root cause

At the heart of the problem lie many non-literary challenges that sometimes get overlooked in our eagerness to build a ready-made solution. The tools we use to build those solutions, such as policy decisions, teaching methodologies and curriculum content, take a “one size fits all” view of the classroom. And often, as we develop and implement what we perceive to be the “ideal solution”, we lose sight of the fact that we are tailoring solutions for a disparate group of students.

The Broad Prize for Urban Education endows a $1 million benefit to urban school districts that can prove they have contributed significantly in the academic performance of, and reducing improvement gaps between, poor and minority students. As recently as March 2012, educational experts gathered in Washington to nominate deserving school districts for the award noticed exactly the disparity that I am talking about here. Although in

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this case the spotlight was on the differences between Hispanic-American and African-American students, the lessons learned are equally valid to any two (or more) groups of students. As noted by USA Today:

The real lesson is that we need to stop lumping blacks and Hispanics together – both in terms of how we measure progress and in terms of policy — as “students of color.” The groups have different education needs“.

The report very aptly identified the root cause of the challenge that educators face when trying to encourage literacy proficiency amongst males of color in the following words:

“Lumping the two groups together only shifts attention away from differing strategies that can work for each group.”

Different strokes

Promoting literacy proficiency amongst men of color must consider the environment beyond the classroom, in order to be successful. Afro-American students have a unique set of socio-economic and socio-emotional circumstances that make them open to a different teaching/learning style than that used for other ethnic communities. And unless educators and policy makers realize that, no policy tool or teaching method will meet with success.

Recognizing the fundamental differences between various groups of students is therefore the first step to encouraging learning within members of those groups. Once some of the social barriers to learning have been removed, men of color will respond more positively to any stimulus that aims to foster literacy proficiency amongst their ranks.

As a result of such reorganization should also come the realization that curricula currently used in traditional schools therefore deserve a second look. Teachers and educators need to understand that what a Hispanic-American student will relate to in the classroom is different from that to which an Afro-American student will respond to, which is totally divergent from that which stimulates white American students.

The fact is that each student learns differently. And a student’s ethnicity helps shape his/her learning styles. These differences in learning styles are well articulated in the text “Moore, Carol. (1992): Learning Styles – Classroom Adaptation“, where the case for “Different strokes make different folks” can be made. The underlying message here is that while students may find it extremely hard to change their unique learning styles, educators should adapt their teaching methods to meet differing learning styles.

Best practices to bridge these differences

So what can we do to bridge these differences? A lot, actually! Over the years of being involved in the learning and development of youth of color, I have seen first-hand the results that certain practices can bring to bear in fostering literacy proficiency in males of color. I’d like to propose some of my “best practices” for educators to consider:

  • Cultural responsiveness: Bringing cultural sensitivity into the classroom means that teachers are aware of the learning style of their pupils, and adapt their teaching methods accordingly
  • Recognizing ability: Given the right literary environment, boys of color will shine too. Teachers should recognize their student’s innate abilities to learn, and must do away with oversimplification of lessons
  • Collaborative classrooms: Rather than promoting “individualism” in learning, help foster a collaborative literary environment
  • Enabling text: Choose text books and other learning material for the curriculum, to which men of color can relate. Using “standard” text will make them “tune out”
  • Unapologetic learning: Choose literacy plans that don’t force boys of color to be apologetic about their place in the community when learning or writing their assignments
  • Readers write & Writers read: Have students read as authors and write as readers. Fostering both these perspectives is a key element of fostering literacy proficiency amongst males of color